Milt Rosenberg’s incisive questioning and cerebral comments offered a respite from angry, noisy talk radio shows.
The host of WGN Radio’s “Extension 720” for decades, he died Tuesday from pneumonia at the University of Chicago Hospitals, said his friend and frequent on-air guest, Chicago attorney Joseph A. Morris.
He’d recovered well from coronary bypass surgery more than 25 years ago. But Mr. Rosenberg, 92, had become frailer after suffering a fall around Thanksgiving. Still, he continued to enjoy a life of the mind. “In the last month of his life, the greater part of December, he listened to a recorded library of virtually the entirety of William Shakespeare’s plays,” Morris said.
With a Ph.D. in psychology and his work as a longtime professor at the University of Chicago, “He could discuss Shakespeare’s comedies one night, and the latest developments on what are black holes and physics the next night, and a roundtable on politics the next night,” said Morris.
In 2008, the National Endowment for the Humanities recognized Mr. Rosenberg’s contributions to broadcasting with a National Humanities Medal. An NEH tribute by David Skinner listed the variety of his show’s guests to demonstrate his skills as an analyst and interviewer: Saul Bellow, Betty Friedan, Bill Murray, Colin Powell, Carl Sagan, Margaret Thatcher and John Updike, among many others.
“Five nights a week, for the last 36 years, except when preempted by baseball or hockey,” Skinner wrote at the time, “Milt Rosenberg has been hosting a radio show where people talk about the most amazing things: books.”
His entry into broadcasting was serendipitous, according to Skinner. “When Friedrich Hayek visited, he moderated a conversation between the Austrian economist and (University of Chicago economist) Milton Friedman. Tapes of these conversations, about a half hour long, were mailed out to 150 radio stations across the country, to be used free of charge,” he said.
In 1973, Mr. Rosenberg began hosting Extension 720. “He completely redefined the notion of talk radio,” Morris said. “Milt created a kind of radio talk show that was as roomy as his mind. He was an omnivorous reader and had mastered any number of fields of knowledge and enjoyed sharing them.”
“He knew a lot about a lot of things,” said Morris, a lawyer and Republican activist once dubbed “Mr. Conservative” by Illinois Politics.
And, “He didn’t require anyone to talk in seven-second soundbites. You could hear people speaking in complete sentences, complete paragraphs,” Morris said. “An entire thought would be put out on the table and looked at from many different directions.”
After being forced to retire from WGN in 2012, Mr. Rosenberg worked for WCGO-AM 1590.
He grew up in New York City, the son of Jewish immigrants from what is now Ukraine, Morris said. His father Jacob worked many jobs, including as a brush salesman. His mother Rachel was a polyglot who spoke six languages, Ukrainian, German, Russian, Polish, Yiddish and English.
Mr. Rosenberg spoke Yiddish as well as German, according to his friend Charles Lipson, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and another frequent guest on his show. Lipson wrote on his blog, “He was an undergraduate at Brooklyn College in the days when Jews like Milt were not wanted at prestigious Ivy League schools. He never forgot those roots and tried to keep the door wide open for generations to come, always reminding them what a wonderful country America is.”
Mr. Rosenberg earned a doctorate in psychology at the University of Michigan. In Michigan, Morris said, he met his future wife, Marjorie Anne King, of Detroit. Before joining the University of Chicago, he taught at Yale University, the Ohio State University, Dartmouth University and the Naval War College.
At his Hyde Park home, Mr. Rosenberg loved luxuriating in his library and its floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, with classical music playing in the background. He enjoyed the variety of ethnic food in Chicago, frequently dining in Greektown and on Armenian specialties at Sayat Nova. And he had a special appreciation for the Chicago actor Anthony Mockus Sr., who appeared in “The Untouchables,” “Backdraft” and TV shows including “Boss” and “Chicago Fire.” He thought Mockus’ voice and delivery were masterful. “Tony could make Milt cry, could make him laugh, right in the studio,” Morris said.
Mr. Rosenberg is also survived by his son Matthew, brother Norman and two grandchildren, Morris said. A funeral service is planned at 3 p.m. Friday, Jan. 19 at Bond Chapel on the University of Chicago campus. After the service a reception is planned at the Quadrangle Club, 1155 E. 57th St. The Rosenberg family requested that those attending RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ted Koppel appeared on Milt Rosenberg’s show on WGN in 2000. | Brian Jackson / Sun-Times files